As summer arrives, the risk of children unintentionally shooting themselves or others is on the rise. 

Unintentional shootings happen most often when children are at home, according to the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. The organization reviewed data from 2015 to 2022 and found that the highest number of unintentional child shootings per day occurred in July. 

“We know that the vital organs of the body are much closer together in a child’s body. If they unintentionally shoot themselves or somebody else shoots a child, they’re more likely to have damage to multiple vital structures which obviously increases the risk of long-term disability or death,” Dr. Lois Lee, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention, said in an interview. “And also, because of the way their blood volume is, they can have much more serious consequences with much less blood loss than an adult.”

Some might assume that toddlers and young children may not be strong enough to pull a trigger, but that is not the case, experts said. At least 895 children aged five and under have managed to find a gun and unintentionally shoot themselves or someone else from 2015 to 2022, according to Everytown. 

This year, a 6-year-old boy shot his infant sibling twice in one incident. Earlier in June, a 3-year-old boy died after he accidentally shot himself in Tennessee, officials said. In May, a 4-year-old girl accidentally shot and killed another child in Illinois, authorities said. Another 4-year-old girl was critically injured after she accidentally shot herself in the head in Georgia; her father had left the loaded gun on the floor of their home, police said.

A 1995 study found that 25% of 3- to 4-year-olds, 70% of 5- to 6-year-olds and 90% of 7- to 8-year-olds have a two-finger trigger-pull strength of at least 10 pounds. More than 62% of the 64 handguns reviewed in the study required trigger-pull strength of less than 5 pounds. 

Children are generally stronger than many adults assume, Dr. Eric Fleegler, a pediatric emergency physician and researcher with Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said. Their short limbs also play a role in how dangerous guns can be if they access them.

“They’re holding stuff against their body,” Fleegler said. “When they pull the trigger, whether it’s pointing toward their face or pointing towards their belly or pointed toward wherever it is, it’s still going to cause injury, harm and most likely death because of the very nature of how small a child is.”

While Everytown was not able to determine the type of gun used in each incident they recorded, handguns were used in 86% of the incidents with available firearm information. Pistols, which are the most popular type of firearm in the U.S., require different amounts of force to pull the trigger and make the gun fire. Depending on the model, handguns can require as little as 1.5 pounds of pressure on the trigger. 

Haley Rinehart’s son Eli was 4 when he accidentally shot himself in the head in April of 2022. Doctors told Rinehart at the time that without emergency surgery, her son would die. He lost his right eye, a portion of his temporal lobe and his right temporal bone. Eli needed to learn how to walk again and had to relearn hand-eye coordination. He now has a fake eye and a big, horseshoe shaped scar on his head.

Rinehart’s son was injured by a handgun while visiting his grandparents. He found the gun on top of a stack of children’s books, Rinehart said. Though he had been told not to touch guns, he said wanted to see the “missile” —what he called a bullet— inside. His finger hit the trigger and the gun discharged, sending a bullet into the right corner of his right eye. It exited behind his right ear.

Rinehart knew her former in-laws had guns, but she had never seen them out. Her ex-mother-in-law worked as a correction officer at a women’s prison in Louisville, Kentucky, and her ex-father-in-law also had guns. She remembers always asking about guns to make sure none were out when her kids were there.

“They would always joke about it like I was being silly like ‘oh, they’re not going to touch that,'” Rinehart said.

Rinehart wasn’t there when her son was shot. Her now ex-husband had taken their children to visit his parents.

A smart gun prototype that only fires when paired with a smart watch was shown by the company Armatix at a conference in Germany in 2010. (JOERG KOCH/AFP/Getty Images)

No criminal charges were ever filed in the case. To this day, Kentucky has no safe storage laws for guns. 

Federal law does, in most cases, prohibit anyone under 18 from owning a handgun. Around 4.6 million minors in the U.S. live in homes with at least one loaded, unlocked firearm, according to Gifford Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Four-in-ten U.S. adults say they live in a household with a gun, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in June 2021. 

“Having a gun in your home is a major risk factor for a fatality of a child in that house,” Fleegler said. 

It’s essential to keep a gun locked separately from ammunition, which should also be locked, Fleegler and Lee said. In their experience, guns are often objects of curiosity that children will try to access. They both agreed that talks about safety with young children are not enough to keep them away from guns. 

“They are incapable of understanding necessarily actions and consequences in a way that will stick in their brains permanently,” Lee said.

Rinehart, who said she lived in an area where guns were almost “next to God,” said her son had been told not to touch guns. He had also been told that if he saw a gun, he should tell an adult.

“He was curious and curiosity outweighed momma’s words of wisdom, I guess,” Rinehart said.

Firearms are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), but there are no real product safety requirements specific to guns. 

“The manufacturers are negligent,” Fleegler said. “They are being negligent in the fact that they are not designing these guns in such a way to decrease harm.”

Some gun safety advocates have called for the manufacture and sale of smart guns that require biometric fingerprint technology to activate the trigger. An estimated 37% of unintentional pediatric deaths could be avoided through the use of personalized firearm technology, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported. 

The NRA, which says it doesn’t oppose the development of smart guns, does oppose any law prohibiting Americans from acquiring or owning firearms that don’t possess smart gun technology. 

Fleegler said he feels smart technology for guns is the way to move forward.

“There is absolutely no reason that a child, a young child or a teenager should be able to get access to somebody else’s gun and be able to use it to cause harm,” Fleegler said. “These are totally preventable deaths, 100%.”

For Rinehart, prevention starts by asking questions. She always tries to find out if someone has guns in their home and, if they do, how they’re stored. 

“I want to know that my kids are going to be safe and protected if they go somewhere,” Rinehart said. 

Rinehart, who acts as an advocate for Moms Demand Action, emphasizes safe storage. She carries around and shares informational cards from Be SMART, an organization advocating for safe gun storage. She said that while talking about gun safety with kids is important, the onus should be on adults to keep firearms away from children.

“We don’t need to put that on the kids, the responsibility is on the adults,” she said.


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